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There’s a quiet magic in working with clay. It starts soft and yielding, then transforms into something strong and enduring through the heat of the kiln. 

This transformation mirrors the journey of Cheah Yeow Seng, the founder of A Touch of Clay, a pottery studio in Segambut, Kuala Lumpur.

Cheah’s journey from accounting to artistry has inspired many and brought a unique touch of artistry to Malaysia’s ceramic scene.

From numbers to nature

Cheah’s path to pottery wasn’t linear. Though his passion for the craft began in his school days, his parents, like many, encouraged a more “lucrative” career in accounting. 

He obliged, working for a couple of years, but the allure of clay proved too strong. “I tried working in accountancy for a few years, but it wasn’t for me. I was just passionate about pottery,” he said.

Image Credit: A Touch of Clay

His parents, who had initially objected to his pursuit of art, remained in the dark about his career switch due to the distance—he was in Kuala Lumpur, and they were in Kedah. 

“I was old enough to make my own decisions, so I made one that I will be happy with, and I am glad I did that,” Cheah said candidly.

Cheah honed his skills by teaching at the Kuala Lumpur College of Art (KLCA), founded by his brother, Cheah Yeow Saik.  

He embraced his role as a ceramics lecturer, sharing his knowledge and passion with eager students. 

However, when the ceramics department closed, he took a bold step and opened A Touch of Clay in 2000, continuing his mission to promote the art of ceramics in Malaysia.

Image Credit: A Touch of Clay

The craft of life

Working closely with ceramics since 1976, he remains as passionate as ever about the craft.

 “Functional wares are much harder to make compared to sculptures,” he explains. “When making a cup, one has to consider the weight, thickness, and how it feels to drink out of it,” he said.

Cheah’s admiration for artists like Shoji Hamada, Rosanjin, Hunch Cooper, and Bernard Leach reflects his deep respect for both functional and sculptural ceramics.

Image Credit: A Touch of Clay

“What I find most intriguing is that, in the earlier days, the Japanese liked to make minimalist functional wares while on the other hand, the West liked to make more complex sculptures,” shared the ceramic artist.

His teaching philosophy is as flexible as clay itself. “I start my classes with a brief history of pottery, then introduce different types of clay and the processes involved,” he says. 

He encourages his students to let their creativity flow, making what they desire rather than replicating his examples. “I want my students to think for themselves and make what they want to make.”

A legacy of inspiration

Image Credit: A Touch of Clay

Drawing inspiration from everything around him, he constantly evolves his methods to keep the learning experience fresh for his students. 

“I have to try out different techniques, clay, firing methods because there is just so much to learn in the world of ceramics. Even though I have been involved in this field for so many years, there is always new knowledge that is waiting for me to acquire,” said the founder.

The internet has revolutionised pottery accessibility. Gone are the days of digging clay and scouring for rare books. Now, aspiring potters can learn through YouTube tutorials and do online shopping for clay, Cheah said.

Image Credit: A Touch of Clay

According to him, the COVID-19 pandemic, surprisingly, brought a renewed appreciation for handmade ceramics. 

“People are starting to realise that handmade work is unique. Unlike factory-made items, handmade items are filled with the character of their makers,” he observed.

Through A Touch of Clay’s website and the power of social media, his works now reach a broader audience. 

His exhibitions abroad in America, China, Korea, Japan, Thailand, and the Philippines have helped put Malaysia on the pottery map, sharing the rich cultural heritage through his Nyonya-inspired series and other creations.

Image Credit: A Touch of Clay

A simple man with a simple joy

Despite the challenges of ceramics—cracks and unexpected results—he finds joy in the process. 

“You just have to love what you are doing. Your passion will keep you alive even when you have nothing,” he muses. 

Image Credit: A Touch of Clay

This love for the craft is what keeps him going, teaching and creating, day after day.

Working with the younger generation, particularly his daughter Thea, who manages social media marketing and online aspects, has added a fresh perspective to the business. 

“For her future, she can decide on whatever she wants, and I hope she finds what she loves like I found what I love,” he says proudly. 

Thea, with her brand ‘My Random Pots’, showcases her journey in pottery, carrying forward the legacy.

Cheah and his daughter, Thea / Image Credit: A Touch of Clay

A Touch of Clay is more than just a pottery studio; it’s a testament to following one’s passion despite societal expectations. As long as there is clay to mould and a wheel to spin, the journey of A Touch of Clay will continue to inspire and shape the world of Malaysian ceramics.

  • You can learn more about A Touch of Clay here.
  • Read other articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.

Featured Image Credit: A Touch of Clay

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